By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” IFC Films, 2006]
By now Ken Loach is no longer merely the last of the red-hot neo-realist British-Marxist filmmakers, but an international master, having rebounded from his ’80s semi-blacklisting with 12 features in 16 years (and more awards than Loach retains hairs on his aging head) that have become the world standard for doc-style naturalism and for the unvarnished depiction of working-class life, British socioeconomics and life-or-death social struggle. There is virtually no major issue Loach hasn’t touched upon, from homelessness (1966’s policy-influencing “Cathy Come Home”), to child abuse (1969’s “Kes”) to day labor (1990’s “Riff Raff”) to the civil war in Nicaragua (“Carla’s Song,” released in 1996), and he remains an uncompromised activist voice, and the Anglo lower-class’s most dogged champion. (My favorite Loach remains 1971’s “Family Life,” a family passion that may be the greatest movie ever about generational gaps, and which follows the downward emotional spiral of a teenage girl badly attended to by her overbearing, painfully repressed parents, played to brittle, insidious perfection by Bill Dean and Grace Cave. The film’s familial firefights could make the average dysfunctional-clan survivor break down with shuddering flashbacks.)
It’s taken Loach this long to address the Irish Troubles (beyond the based-on-a-true-story Belfast context for 1990’s political cover-up thriller “Hidden Agenda”), and “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” is a kind of brother film to the ordinarily contemporary-minded Loach’s period portrait of the Spanish Civil War, “Land and Freedom” (1995). Set in 1920, the movie is fairly methodical in its march through history: we begin with Cillian Murphy’s young doctor-to-be looking to flee Ireland to finish med school, before he is confronted too many times with British troops assaulting his countrymen. Once he takes his oath of allegiance to a Free Ireland, Loach’s film (written by longtime comrade Paul Laverty) follows this earnest naïf from plotter to guerrilla assassin to low-rung politician, refusing to obey the Government of Ireland Act treaty that would soon enough pit Irish against Irish. The story takes classic shape: Murphy’s Damien sees family torn apart and fellow patriots and childhood friends felled in the fight, making him more and more resistant to compromise and more resolved to die for his cause. (Sound familiar?) Loach’s objective, natural-lighting filmmaking is its own eloquent, humane statement, about history viewed as ordinary people’s lives, not as grand melodramas of the rich and powerful why would anyone want to shoot period films any other way? Loach being Loach, the film is filled with revolutionary leftist cant, all of it sound and true and unimpeachable, and much of it concerned with Irish industry and economics which is largely what the Republicans knew quite well they were fighting for, not merely for vengeance or justice. It’s safe to say that “The Wind” is the greatest, most observant and most authentic-feeling film ever made about the civil war (not that very many filmmakers have dared to begin with), and that Loach is a virtual godsend as a cultural voice, in these days of pernicious spin, political mercenariness and neo-imperial slaughter.
And for an aperitif, finally Stuart Gordon’s “From Beyond” (1986) and Dan O’Bannon’s “The Return of the Living Dead” (1985) arrive on DVD, blasts from the not-so-distant, Reagan-befouled past when horror farce wasn’t harmlessly Mel Brooks or “Scary Movie,” but something much more perverse and bizarre. Gordon, riding the mystery train that he started up in 1985 with the seminal “Re-Animator,” extrapolates on a Lovecraft story once again (this time, it’s pineal glands gone horribly, phallically amok) and strides happily into mucky, self-destructive territories otherwise only visited by Frank Henenlotter. (Frank, where art thou?) With the spectacularly game Barbara Crampton again as his accomplice, Gordon may’ve finished up the most audacious double whammy in modern horror. Dan O’Bannon, on the other hand, is an old-school genre freak who has largely rolled around for decades now in the cash being a co-creator of the “Alien” franchise has brought him. But his 1985 zombie satire almost 20 years before “Shaun of the Dead” is a ripping, grue-slicked riot, complete with schlock princess Linnea Quigley as a nihilistic punkette named Trash (“Hey, somebody get some light over here, Trash is taking off her clothes again!”), James Karen overacting, a plethora of Nazi in-jokes and cinema’s first sprinting, dashing, leaping flesh-eaters (17 years before “28 Days Later”). I know, zombies both grim and risible are glutting the mediascape right now, and if you see another, your head will messily, gorily explode. But O’Bannon’s film is the microgenre’s first slap in the face, and it’s still a hoot.
“The Wind That Shakes The Barley” (IFC Films), “From Beyond” and “The Return of the Living Dead” (MGM) are now available on DVD.